2019 Farm Year
Working Toward Sustainable Agriculture in Kentucky
February 20, 2020
This marks my 38th year at Mt. Folly. My mother, who farmed here before me, died this January. My ties to the land run through her, and Rachel Ware Bush before that, then Mattie Ware and Richard Ware before that, back to early settlement in “the beautiful level of Kentucky.” This truly is a family farm, one which has reinvented itself with the times.
For my part, in the early 1980’s, I turned the farm from a tobacco and cow/calf operation to one which raised and sold beef without antibiotics or growth hormones. I worked on this for 25 years, until I had a horse-back riding smash up, which led to the sale of the beef company. But in those years, I made it clear that drug-free cattle were possible, and now meats raised this way are available nationwide.
During my recovery, I learned about the ecological crisis of climate change, and have put together a system of soil carbon sequestration using organic and regenerative agriculture methods, married to a local food system which includes a farm-to-table distillery and restaurant in our small Kentucky town. I got in the hemp business, a new crop which helped me recover.
The model of regenerative agriculture/local food system will be the reinvention for the next 50 years and will be what I leave behind.
This week, Dr. Susan Shore and I have been out measuring soil organic matter, which is 58% carbon. The task is to build soil organic matter through cover crops, no chemicals, minimal tillage, and rotational grazing. The trick is to stabilize the organic matter and keep it in the ground.
Laura and Dr. Susan on their way to collect soil samples
We are bootstrapping this now, and it isn’t all peachy keen. Last September, we marked latitude and longitude coordinates in fields which we are farming differently…cover crops, organic crops then hay, pasture, forest land we don’t disturb, and so on then measured organic matter. Thursday, we couldn’t find the soil probe (it was behind a door at the homestead cabin), and then we couldn’t get the coordinates to match up with google maps. (We found the answer to this question the next day. The coordinates were correct; the field names not so much.)
So we worked on different fields, with different treatments: hemp; rye; buckwheat for grain (buckwheat pancakes for brunch at the farm-to-table) rye and vetch, going this year into organic soybeans; a small cattle lot going into a garden for the farm-to-table; a fine field of silt loam with a rye cover to be rolled down, going into organic soybeans; fescue pasture land, until now abandoned, going into an orchard for the distillery, and an organic garden site with a thick rye cover going into sweet potatoes. We’ll publish these numbers when we get results back from the lab, but below are the organic matter numbers from late last summer, the coordinates correct.
Savannah Radmacher, a Berea College Agriculture and Natural Resource Management graduate who is a key player in this effort, measured carbon at two soil depths, 0-6 inches, which is less stable, and 6-12 inches, which is more stable. We were directed to take these measurements by Dr. Drew Smith, scientist at the Rodale Institute’s experimental farm.
Here they are:
November 16, 2019
Deluge or drought (and we’ve had both this year), there is a rhythm to the farm year. We are nearing the end of harvest, with the non-gmo crops and the organic corn in the bin, the organic hemp in the barn, some stripped and ready for CO2 extraction next week.
The Bloody Butcher corn is still a little wet, and the organic soybeans are left to go. Then, there are the sweet potatoes! We’ve got plenty for Wildcat Willy’s Distillery and farm-to-table restaurant. Digging them is a treasure hunt for strong people.
Here is our trusty combine harvesting organic soybeans.
Our first sweet potato crop which will be distilled into moonshine at Wildcat Willy's Distillery.
Our rye cover crop starting off strong, it will protect the ground from erosion and sequester carbon while adding vital nutrients to the soil.
Because of the restaurant, we’ve put up a greenhouse and have winter vegetables for the season. Plus, we’ve got fantastic lettuces, which fresh-picked will be a December and January treat. This is part of our mission to localize the food system.
For carbon sequestration, we’ve got cover crops for our harvested acres, though we’ve not seeded the organic corn ground yet, as the cows are gleaning the fallen corn. My plan says we’ll seed rye on Tuesday, a little late, but probably alright.
September 2, 2019
Boy, did things dry out fast! For the past month, we have been irrigating the hemp crop and our vegetables for the farm-to-table restaurant at the distillery, opening this fall.
The last of the hay is getting cut and rolled, and we wait impatiently for a part of the silage chopper, which broke after we’d brought in several loads. It should be here tomorrow on the noon truck.
Before we get on to harvest, I want to report how much we love buckwheat as a smother/cover crop. After combining our organic rye in July, we drilled in organic buckwheat. It is in full bloom right now, attracting all sorts of bees and butterflies. We are going to attempt to harvest some of the seed, to save on the cost of organic seed next year.
Once we finish chopping silage (tomorrow, I hope!) we’ll use cattle to glean the field and then plant tillage radish. Our challenge with radish in the past has been the size of the seed – they are tiny – so getting a consistent cover with our hay buster seeder is a challenge.
Mt. Folly is hosting a farmer field day here in late September. Our topics will be hemp, organics, our farm-to-table restaurant and distillery, and the potential for farmers to make money sequestering carbon in organic agricultural soils. Dr. Susan Shore is coming in for the week, and we all hope to learn a lot.
Otherwise, I’ve drafted my aunts to help me plan the garden at the distillery. They have told me, quite firmly, to draw it to scale. That’s my project for the evening.
Laura bought her irrigation equipment during the drought of 2012, and hasn’t had it out since. But we need it this year!
In addition to being a pretty cover crop, buckwheat improves the soil and attracts bees and butterflies.
June 1st, 2019
It is June 1, wet, and I don’t recall being this far behind on planting, though I know my memory can trick me.
Our Austrian Winter Peas, which we plant before organic corn to fix Nitrogen and then plow under, have made a crop! Yesterday, walking the Mule Barn field, I managed to fill my stomach and pocket with peas as I bushwhacked along.
Mule Barn, one of our best organic fields, is split this year between hemp and organic corn. The hemp clones are under some oak trees, waiting for it to be dry enough for us to transplant them. We’ve already got one set of hemp cuttings in the ground, have this one and another, plus hemp for fiber left to go.
Christian, Laura, and Ben admire the hemp transplants.
The organic beans are all in, planted into rye, which is supposed to help with weed suppression. We’ve got several rows of sweet potatoes in, and need to plant a whole lot more, for Wildcat Willy’s Distillery, opening late this fall.
I’ll write again when everything is planted. Here is the list of what’s left: organic corn, some hemp, Heritage corn, sweet potatoes and organic clover for seed. It is going to be quite a push to the finish!
March 31st, 2019
We made it through the winter without any big disasters, and are gearing up for another season. Calving and kidding started March 1, so the farm is happy with young calves and young goats. We haven’t had problems in either herd.
Most of the spring seed is ordered, some is delivered, the fields are limed, the hay fields renovated. On the negative side of the ledger, the compost hasn’t cooked as well as we’d like and the cover crops are just coming on, as there was an early frost November 4. I’m worried about the fruit trees tonight, as the temperature was in the low 70s yesterday, but is forecast to be 24 degrees tomorrow morning, April 1. (Not fooling!) Every year is different, which makes farming so challenging, organic farming doubly so.
In addition to the usual winter months spent planning, we are part of a hemp industry which is in toddler stage. The day after hemp was legalized in the December, 2018 Farm Bill, Pay Pal shut down our account, and Google and Facebook continue their policy of disallowing advertising and promotion. We can’t even boost our farm page!
I am on the policy committee of the Organic Farmer’s Association, and so in March went to Washington for our annual meeting and a day of lobbying congress. The “ask” that rang truest with Kentucky’s delegation was for better USDA policing of the organic supply chain. We farmers just ask for a level playing field!
Juan, Clay, Joshua at Mt. Folly Farm, after studying the soil.
January 1, 2019
It’s official. 2018 was the wettest year in central Kentucky since area record-keeping began in 1872.
Our non-gmo soybeans are still in the field. We’ve been unable to harvest them because we’ve not gotten a good period of dry. Driving into town, I see other farmers in the same situation, fields unharvested. It’s a real mess, but one that was predicted by climate specialists at the Donella Meadows fellowship 10 years ago. “Kentucky? Drought and deluge…”
For the farm, this would be a near-disaster, except for the organic hemp crop and the support of our Homestead Alternatives hemp CBD customers. So one lesson -- one I didn’t have to learn on a farm, but in life -- is don’t count on one thing, but do several things well.
Obviously, this is easier said than done. It takes us away from the reductionist mid-set, as a farm should. When we switched to organics, this became even more compelling. Everything is connected. We feed the microbes, who feed the plants, who feed us. The climate is impacted by how much carbon our organic soils and timberland can absorb and hold. The local economy is impacted by our ability to make good jobs.
Dr. Susan Shore is spending two weeks here, and we are planning our climate change project for 2019. She has written a post with her perspective, on the climate page here.
2018 Farm Year
We finally have some dry weather, and harvest is on. We’ve got our Cobbler variety of CBD in the barn, and finished our organic corn today. Our organic yellow corn goes in the grain bin, for sale in 2019. Our organic Bloody Butcher is cleaned and sacked, ready for the granary, which we’ll fire up after Thanksgiving.
May – High Summer, 2018
High Summer, here we are!
In June, we hosted Berea College’s program for the Whitney Young Scholars, got up our first cutting of hay, and mowed the farm off. Our hay fields are certified organic, and we fertilize them after each cutting with Mt. Folly Compost tea. It’s “our secret recipe,” so I’m not going to tell you how we make it, (it’s all organic, and the inspector reviews the mix.) but I can tell you that the whole point of the brew is to feed the soil.
This is the paradigm shift in organic food production. On Mt. Folly, the soil is alive! And this is why we at the Organic Farmer’s Association think hydroponic organics goes against some of the basic principles of organic farming. This at a minimum should be labeled, so customers can know the difference.
For my part, having been at it for 35 years, I’ve concluded that deception in food advertising is so pervasive that local knowledge and transparency are the only answers. This is the reason behind this website, and the science and legal tabs on Laura’s Mercantile website, and the “our-doors-are-open” policy at Mt. Folly.
Even though I’ve moved to a vegetarian product line, I find it hard to imagine the farm surviving without our excellent cow herd, both for land use reasons and soil fertility reasons. Ruminant animals have been roaming global grasslands since the Pliocene, and have been part of human existence since the Neolithic period, when the Auroch was domesticated.
This summer, an intern has worked on carbon sequestration related to building organic matter. We can do this better and faster with compost and herd behavior. But that is a whole other story….
I love organic farming. Being an early adopter in Kentucky, we have to invent our way to success. To this end, Pascaul, Juan and Jason deserve a shout out for “the invention,” which has been in action when the Johnson grass was stalky, about a month ago. (We posted this on the farm’s facebook page.)
It has regrown, now willowy, with many seeds. The new adaptation will mow the seed heads off, thus giving it at least one more good punch. (It will never go down…not in Kentucky.) I just went to the barn to look at our new purchase, 4 brand new lawn mowers, to be attached to a Rube Goldberg system of belts and pulleys, mowing and mulching the Johnson Grass before it goes to seed. At least that is the plan.
May saw us get our organic and non-gmo crops in the ground. Hemp planting dragged over until June because of the late delivery of seed. This problem ought to go away as the crop becomes normalized. It has cost us yield for three seasons now. But we keep at it!
March and April 2018
It has been a cold, wet spring, and we need to get planting. We’ve weaned the fall calves, fixed everything that needed fixing, and spent two months slogging through mud, and more mud. Right now, the guys are testing the flame weeder, our weapon against weeds in our organic fields.
March saw the Organic Association of Kentucky conference, during which most organic farmers in Kentucky gather to learn from one another and have some fun. I attended the organic hemp track. Then, in early April, I went to Washington, D.C. for the annual meeting of Organic Farmer’s Association and we met with our legislators to explain the benefits of organic farming, and asked them to see to enforcement of organic regulations, and stop fraudulent organic imports.
Late in the month, I spoke to Berea College’s agriculture students, and met with Leadership Central Kentucky.
April 18th marked a high point, the dedication of the Daniel Boone Settlement and Scholl Station Historical Highway Marker. Much of the farm is part of Daniel Boone’s only settlement in Kentucky, chosen by Boone in 1775. My mother, distantly related to the Boone’s (I’m even more distantly related, I guess.) unveiled the sign, and we had a reception at the log cabin.
The rest of the month has been spent working on the distillery when it rained, working on the roads or pasture when it is not. We’ve got to start planting!
I don’t miss a day to get outside, though, and have been able to have nice walks with wonderful wildflowers.
The big news for January is that we finished our granary, and started grinding heritage cornmeal and grits for local sale. We’ve sold some Bloody Butcher to a Ky. Distillery, and tried some for Wildcat Willy’s, perfecting the grain blend for our new distillery in our hometown of Winchester. Our goal is system sustainability, which means we sell wholesale and make deliveries in our regional food shed (as far as an electric car can travel is our self- imposed limitation for now), with the rest of our business online, delivered through our post office. The farm is to be a carbon sink, and we are figuring out how to measure what we do. Updates are on the Climate page
For our sustainable farm-based business to be viable, the online store needs to pay its way. So far, it hasn’t managed to. In this space, we are competing with Amazon, and we are severely hampered by Facebook, which won’t let us advertise or otherwise boost posts with hemp. The wholesale business is great, and we are in more than 100 retail outlets in Kentucky.
Any ideas to improve Laura’s Mercantile web store would be welcomed. Please let me know how we can do better: the product line, the website itself, or anything else.
Our 2017 Farm Year
November – The month started out with rain, which came to a sliding stop, and as I write this (December 3) it is pretty droughty and unseasonably warm. We’ve only had a trace of moisture in the last 30 days. This has stunted the cover crops, but allowed us to finish harvest in good time.
The organic corn and soybeans, the non-gmo corn, and the heritage grain are stored here on the farm. We don’t have storage for one crop, and this year we chose to sell our non-gmo soybeans out of the field. They are on a barge to Japan, which bans growing gmo crops, but allows gmo crops to be imported. Our customer is a grain elevator owned by the Japanese, supplying a wary domestic market. I was elected in September to the policy committee of the Organic Farmers Association, sponsored by Rodale in an attempt to keep the farmer’s voice in national organic policy. I invite you to become familiar with the group, our issues, and join if you are a farmer. http://organicfarmersassociation.org A link at the bottom of the page shows current position polices for the organzation.
We are also starting to have folks visit the farm, and I’ll talk policy and organic farming and climate with anyone who shows up when I’m here. One guy came to check out the B&B and wound up on a speedy hike down the farm lane, so I could squeeze exercise into my day. He has experience with Rocky Mountain horses, a breed of Appalachian mountain horse the foundation stallion of which, Old Tobe, is associated with Natural Bridge State Park, which is 40 minutes from the farm. Continuing to ride these minor breeds is important work, but is something I’m not able to do since my riding accident. I have a couple of ideas in the back of my head about this, though. If you would like to get to know the Rocky Mountain horse better, let me know.
Finally, in November, we had two community events at the cabin, which dovetails well with my interest in real community, not virtual ones. I hope we can keep this up.
At last! The log cabin at the Mt. Folly Homestead is open! It is available for rent for long weekends, and if you’d like to stay longer, we can work something out.
It is a place for events and retreats, too. Yesterday, we had a group of researchers working on a fascinating aspect of Clark county history. If you would like to know more about either option, email me at Laura@laurasmercantile.com.
We are plugging along with harvest, the weather being wet and warm, which makes things difficult. We managed to get a soil health cover crop (Crimson clover, rye, and Austrian winter peas) planted on two 25-acre non-gmo crop fields the week of October 23, and I checked today, and we have germination.
I’m going to post pictures of the crop, winter through spring, so you can get a better feel of the process for building soil fertility and sequestering carbon through growing plants in the winter.
September-We are creeping closer to our farm stay grand opening. The floors are done, and the cabinets are set.
On the farm, we are getting ready to harvest, and fall calving is in full swing.
August-The solar panels went up on the log house, and we've hung the sign on Laura's Mercantile at the Crooked House. We hosted the Organic Association of Kentucky Field Day, a big event for us. We looked at the organic crops, the specialty equipment, and served a farm-to-table lunch for 65!
We mixed up a batch of hempcrete and used it to chink between the logs in the cabin. The new product should have many benefits, from the insulation to environmental properties.
We've attempted hand weeding our hemp, but have done little good. The weed population has overwhelmed the crop, for the 3rd year in a row.
July – We have been trying to figure out how to best use our new “flame weeder.” This is considered an important piece of organic equipment, and is a pretty fearsome contraption. It knocks back the Johnsongrass, but the Johnsongrass comes back and there is some damage to the crop, in this case organic soybeans.
One of our biggest organic farming successes this year has been using buckwheat as a smother crop. This is a practice we’ll expand next year. Very pleased with it!
Janet White invented the best Hickory King Cornbread Blueberry cake, and taught us to make it. She has also developed chocolate cornbread…really.
The corn is tasseling, and some is as high as an elephant’s eye! We are going to make a good crop.
We visited Berea College’s organic farm, particularly to learn about their grain-grinding program. Many thanks to Andrew Oles and Sean Clark for rolling out the red carpet.
June—We think we’ve got a handle on the weed load in our organic fields, with the exception of the hemp. We have been trying to cultivate it with an old tobacco tractor. It was planted too late!
Taking the whole crew, we attended a field day at Windy Acres Farm in Tennessee. Thank you Alfred and Carney Farris!
May-We didn’t get all our cover crops planted last fall, so we planted Austrian winter peas in late February. Here is what they look like today, May 23rd, before we plow them down for our organic corn. Picture those cover crops we did get planted last fall are lush and building our soil fertility. Just like we like them. Picture remodeling our log house into a farm stay rental is part of our business plan, and sawing the logs from another 18th century cabin is how we’ll get authentic era floors. Here are the sawn logs, drying after getting wet on the drive back from the mill in Georgetown, KY. We’ve got goats everywhere, it seems. They are our new brush cutters.
April – From the field to the grocery store…it’s a long way!
Here we are with our hemp chocolates in Kroger’s before Derby Day.
What a dream it is to take a wild flower walk in the Hornback Hollow. Next year, this will be available for guests
March – Work on the log house proceeds apace. Angelo has rebricked the fireplace in the 19-century ell, which we have gutted to modernize. We’ve had to dig down to the dirt in the original cabin, as the floor joists were rotten. This is going to be some project!
February – demolition on the cabin is done. Now we are starting on the chimney in the ell, which we brick over or tear down.
We have early jonquils in the Andy Robinson cemetery at Dry Ridge. Come learn about the Civil War African-American settlement, and, if you know anything about it, please contribute to our effort to document the amazing story.
Laura signed on the dotted line for 31 East Broadway, which she is restoring and then turning over to Ben and Bill for a distillery.
Late February-Generally, we try to plant cover crops on all our fields, but every once and a while, we don’t get this done. On the organic ground shown above, the weed load (johnsongrass in particular) was so bad, that we plowed, and then this spring planted spring peas. We will harrow these under before we plant organic corn in May.
Some of this we planned, and some we didn’t...
We celebrated New Year’s Eve here at the farm, with my husband Bill in a hospital bed, having just had his knee replaced.
As of mid-January, prices have improved a bit, and we are starting to sell our non-GMO corn. When we deliver to the terminal at the Ohio River, CGB, the purchaser, does a variety of tests to ensure there is no genetic pollution in the crop. We’ve passed with flying colors!
Our big winter news, however, is the decision to remodel the farm’s original residence, a 1790 log house, which had an “L” built on it in the 1840’s. A Kentucky Landmark, it needed some TLC. The TLC turned into tough love, as running plumbing that wouldn’t freeze and putting in a better kitchen, was impossible without interior demolition. This revealed a 2-story brick chimney, which will be the centerpiece of the “L”. The cabin is in pretty good shape, almost ready for its close-up.